Ask an Island Expert: What exactly is a beetlebung tree?

By Abigail Higgins

Beetlebung: a beautiful tree with a wonderful name. Many people are not especially tree-aware, but everyone perks up when they hear “beetlebung.” It is a catchy name, and belongs to a native tree that is unique and attractive.

Beetlebung (Nyssa sylvatica, or black gum) is a colony-forming tree, surrounding itself in hospitable conditions with offspring that sprout from parent roots running beneath the soil surface. When they have grown to size, the small forest of beetlebungs becomes distinctive due to their attractive growth patterns.

Such a colony is easily visible from the road out of Edgartown toward Morning Glory Farm, where it is silhouetted behind the wetland on the road’s south side. Another is at the Chilmark crossroads known as Beetlebung Corner.

The young beetlebung grows straight, with branches forming perpendicular to the trunk that end in delicate twiglets. As the tree grows, the branches characteristically acquire a graceful droop, sweeping down around the trunk attractively. One often sees mature beetlebungs that have lost their tops due to weather-related causes, the upper parts continuing to grow in a horizontal fashion.

Another eye-catching feature of beetlebungs is their flamboyant fall color. As autumn approaches, the leaves deepen to wine in color initially, but then continue, developing an array of reds, scarlets, crimsons, and oranges known to stop traffic.

As the two Island locations cited demonstrate, beetlebungs like wetland conditions, but are also to be found on dry ridges. They naturally form a deep taproot that searches for what they need. The wood is hard, heavy, and not easily split, making it unsuitable timber for some of the early colonists’ needs. However, large mallets called beetles, made for pounding things such as the bungs of barrels, were an ideal use for the cross-grained wood, which also produced the bungs themselves.

Abigail Higgins writes the “Garden Notes” column for The MV Times.